Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The worst ice storm in Canadian History was in 1998?

While freezing rain is not an uncommon Canadian experience, the ice storm that hit eastern Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick was exceptional. Environment Canada senior climatologist and resident climate expert, David Phillips, provides us with his analysis of how Ice Storm'98 stacks up in the record books.

Ice storms are often winter's worst hazard. More slippery than snow, freezing rain or glaze is tough and tenacious, clinging to every object it touches. A little can be dangerous, a lot can be catastrophic.

Ice storms are a major hazard in all parts of Canada except the North, but are especially common from Ontario to Newfoundland. The severity of ice storms depends largely on the accumulation of ice, the duration of the event, and the location and extent of the area affected. Based on these criteria, Ice Storm'98 was the worst ever to hit Canada in recent memory. From January 5-10, 1998 the total water equivalent of precipitation, comprising mostly freezing rain and ice pellets and a bit of snow, exceeded 85 mm in Ottawa, 73 mm in Kingston, 108 in Cornwall and 100 mm in Montreal. Previous major ice storms in the region, notably December 1986 in Ottawa and February 1961 in Montreal, deposited between 30 and 40 mm of ice - about half the thickness from the 1998 storm event!

The extent of the area affected by the ice was enormous. Freezing precipitation is often described as "a line of" or "spotty occurrences of". At the peak of the storm, the area of freezing precipitation extended from Muskoka and Kitchener in Ontario through eastern Ontario, western Quebec and the Eastern Townships to the Fundy coasts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In the United States, icing coated Northern New York and parts of New England.

What made the ice storm so unusual, though, was that it went on for so long. On average, Ottawa and Montreal receive freezing precipitation on 12 to 17 days a year. Each episode generally lasts for only a few hours at a time, for an annual average total between 45 to 65 hours. During Ice Storm'98, it did not rain continuously, however, the number of hours of freezing rain and drizzle was in excess of 80 - again nearly double the normal annual total.

Unlucky too! The storm brutalized one of the largest populated and urbanized areas of North America leaving more than four million people freezing in the dark for hours, if not, days. Without question, the storm directly affected more people than any previous weather event in Canadian history. Into the third week following the onset of the storm, more than 700,000 were still without electricity. Had the storm tracked 100 km farther east or west of its main target, the disruptive effect would have been far less crippling.

How did the storm affect Canada:

  • at least 25 deaths, many from hypothermia.

  • about 900,000 households without power in Quebec; 100,000 in Ontario.

  • about 100,000 people took refuge in shelters

  • residents were urged to boil water for 24 to 48 hours.

  • airlines and railway discouraged travel into the area

  • 14,000 troops (including 2,300 reservists) deployed to help with clean up, evacuation and security.

  • millions of residents forced into mobile living, visiting family to shower and share a meal or moving in temporarily with a friend or into a shelter.

  • prolonged freezing rain brought down millions of trees, 120,000 km of power lines and telephone cables, 130 major transmission towers each worth $100,000 and about 30,000 wooden utility poles costing $3000 each.

The damage in eastern Ontario and southern Quebec was so severe that major rebuilding, not repairing, of the electrical grid had to be undertaken. What it took human beings a half century to construct took nature a matter of hours to knock down.

Farmers were especially hard hit. Dairy and hog farmers were left without power, frantically sharing generators to run milking machines and to care for new-born piglets. Many Quebec maple syrup producers, who account for 70% of the world supply, were ruined with much of their sugar bush permanently destroyed.

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